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Deeply divided

by Marco Seliger


Rear-view mirror of a German army truck.

Rear-view mirror of a German army truck.

Afghanistan will not witness another civil war after the ISAF troops leave, security expert Marco Seliger told Hans Dembowski and Peter Hauff in an interview in mid-December, but it will not become a full-blown democracy either.

How do German soldiers in Afghanistan assess their efforts there today?
Most of the women and men are still convinced of what they are doing. They are good advisers and trainers. Germany’s Bundeswehr, our armed forces, began to support the build up of Afghanistan’s security forces in 2005. Unfortunately, progress still can only be measured in millimetres. According to our standards, only parts of the Afghan National Army – ANA for short – are in a position to operate on their own. That only applies to a small share of 195,000 troops.

What share can operate on its own?
In the region where the Bundeswehr is deployed, the ANA has three brigades of about 4000 soldiers each. One brigade is operating in a self-sufficient way.

What is the chance of Afghan security forces assuming respon­sibility in 2015?
Your wording is incorrect. The respon­sibility has always been Afghanistan’s. As the name states, the International Security Assistance Force ISAF is merely assisting the country. I think that, by the time all NATO troops will have left in 2015, there will still be violent clashes, but Afghanistan’s security forces will be able to contain them. They would, however, be no match for any attack from abroad. The ANA would be helpless, for instance, should tanks and aircraft attack from Pakistan, which is what many people in Afghanistan fear.

But why would Pakistan attack?
Well, there might be domestic reasons. Worries concerning Pakistan’s military are quite common in Afghanistan. Whoever wants security, however, must not only consider the army, the police is important too, especially the Afghan Local Police. The USA in particular is supporting its creation. Basically, the Local Police is a system of vigilants, who are mostly re-armed former militia men. Their contingents consist of ten to 100 men. In US eyes, they are a success story. In the north of the country, the programme is actually working quite well, but it is not doing so in the south, where the Taliban control many of the villages. They have their own “local police”.  

Are the Taliban and the government negotiating with one another?
No, they are not. High-ranking officers have told me that the Taliban refuse to negotiate with President Hamid Karzai and his government. However, there are talks that involve various conflict parties. In January, a major conference involving all conflict parties is to be held in Ashgabat, the capital of Turkmenistan, and the Taliban are expected to take part. Afghanistan’s government, however, will not do so, nor will its High Peace Council. The fact that the government is not considered a valid partner is making it hard for western forces to get meaningful talks started. Negotiations are necessary however. The only high-level exchange there has been about exchanging prisoners so far. The USA wanted to be given a US soldier who was abducted, and the Taliban insisted on freeing five commanders who were held in Guantánamo. That exchange actually happened.

Is the drug economy relevant?
Well, all conflict parties rely on revenues from opium production and the drugs trade. The insurgents, however, are also collecting taxes along major roads, including from NATO’s supply convoys. Afghanistan is full of rumours, and one of the most popular is that even the USA is funding some of its military effort with drug money. This season, some 6000 tons of raw opium will be harvested. That is a lot. A few years back, it was 8000 tons. The drug economy is most relevant, and all parties are involved.

Do Afghan farmers have an alter­native to cultivating opium?
Cultivating opium production is certainly more lucrative than cultivating wheat, for instance. Western governments hope for a transformation of agriculture by 2022, but I do not see where the necessary investments are supposed to come from. So far, Afghanistan rests on two pillars, mineral resources and agriculture. I don’t know how farmers are going to be convinced of cultivating crops that result in lower incomes. And if interests keep clashing in the drug business, even the best security forces will not be able to prevent violence.

So it looks like Afghanistan is ­headed for another civil war.
No, I don’t think so, and nor do most of the people I have interviewed. They say that the costs would be too high, and that most territorial disputes have been settled by now. Those who racked in profits have built nice villas and even palaces. They don‘t want to see everything destroyed again. To a considerable content, the warring factions have arranged matters in a way they all find acceptable – and that implies that the Taliban and Pashtun mullahs have a future in the south and east of the country too. The new-found arrangement is the reason why violence is not escalating anymore, and that is what matters to the Afghan people. They accept as an everyday reality that their country is deeply divided in economic, social and political terms.

Is there any hope of a modern democracy emerging?
In the short run, such hopes are an illusion, but in the long run, a lot can happen. The urban-rural divide is huge in Afghanistan. Urban people look down at the villages, and the rural people think: “We’ll teach you a lesson.” Historically, the villages always prevailed. If the countryside stays calm, however, the cities may have a chance to develop.

Dual realities of tradition and modernity mark many developing countries.
Yes, and in Afghanistan the urban-rural dichotomy is really striking. To this day, rural people struggle to make a livelihood, and their local mullahs are not keen on education and individuals’ personal autonomy. In the cities, however, there is a vibrant public sphere with all sorts of opinions expressed in newspapers and radio programmes, for instance.

Does religious ideology matter very much?
What matters to Afghan people is their family, their tribe and their ethnic group. The interest in Jihadi groups and religious fanaticism is fading. Young students I met have a totally different agenda, and they are extremely moti­vated. They want to escape misery and poverty. They have gone to school, they have experienced reliable institutions to some extent, and they are hungry for success. The big question is whether they will get a chance at all.

Marco Seliger
is editor-in-chief of loyal, the security magazine published by the Association of German Reservists. He has regularly visited Afghanistan since 2001 and spent three weeks doing research there in November and December 2012.
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